It is hard to believe that the band Simple Minds is standing on the edge of clocking in 40 years in the music business. It seems like only yesterday the band led by best friends Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill were experimenting with synthesizers and big emotions. Fast forward to late 2016 and we find a band continuing to find intriguing and innovative ways to captivate fans. On November 11th the band releases Acoustic a beautifully crafted release of some of their best known songs reverently translated into acoustic renditions. Could a band renown for their bombastic stadium sound strip back to an acoustic approach and retain the impact of their songs? Let me assure you they not only meet the challenge but show off their brilliant adaptability as the songs get even more evocative and soulful stripped down to basics. The release underlines the fact that Simple Minds’ songs have a timeless quality.
The initial idea for the album came from a rare session the band performed for the Chris Evans Breakfast show in 2014. The reaction from fans was overwhelming and sparked the thought that maybe there was an album waiting to be made which could review the ground the band had travelled but from another angle. They got confirmation that they were on to something in 2016 when the band played an acoustic set for the Zermatt Unplugged Festival in the Swiss Alps. The audience’s reaction to the 90 minute performance led to Kerr and Burchill hatching a cunning plan. Kerr and Burchill decided to return to their hometown of Glasgow where they would record the album in Gorbel’s Studio, a former railway workers social club. The studio was located not far from where they were both born and is the very building where Kerr and Burchill played their first gig. To join in the venture they enlisted veteran Simple Mind bassist Ged Grimes, backing vocalist Sarah Brown, acoustic guitarist Gordy Goudie and percussionist Cherisse Osei to bring their ideas into reality. The songs stripped of their synths and studio techniques produced organic Celtic soul as only Simple Minds can create.
The album contains 11 songs from Simple Minds back catalog and a cover of Richard Hawley’s breathtaking Long Black Train. The transmutation of the selected songs into an acoustic approach reinvigorates the songs, while respecting the original tracks intent and feeling. The album kicks off with a Led Zeppelin inspired take of The American which was the band’s first single for the Virgin label in 1981. This is a song that set the band originally on their synth quest but is just as exceptional with the new approach. Vocally Kerr displays a mellow gravitas while shedding the bombast. Like a well aged wine the song that was initially about naivety and hubris becomes a benediction to experience. In addition Charlie Burchill must be commended for the beauty of his guitar work; he is as scintillating on acoustic as he is on electric guitar. His work is a standout on this track.
Promised You a Miracle brings in songstress and fellow Scot K.T. Tunstall to produce a Celtic thunderclap. The song is simply gorgeous. You can feel the joy everyone had in performing this track. The lower key folk treatment loses none of the exuberance of the original. The song also leaves the listener with no doubts about Kerr’s vocals which can still knock the pain off the back of the room. Additionally Burchill is inspired in handling the translation of his crystalline guitar rifts into something as beautiful as on the original. Glittering Prize retains all of the glorious, evocative, and intricate beauty of the initial song. The yearning captured in the song is now invested with a life time’s experience. On this track and throughout the release the members of the band are shown as masters of their craft, true artisans.
Where some of the prior songs at times would have seemed difficult to translate into an acoustic approach, See the Lights is a much less demanding track in that respect. You can really appreciate the lyrics of this song in this format and Kerr’s vocal is up to the demands of a lower key acoustic delivery as his voice had become more nuanced and rich over time. The song holds all of its impact. The energetic and shimmering New Gold Dream, 81,82, 83, 84 would at first seem like a strange song to select for an acoustic approach, but translates beautifully, and the band is genius in bring about it’s metamorphosis. Again thanks to Kerr’s vocal interpretation and Burchill’s inspired guitar work the song is at once a tribute to the original and something completely singular.
Upon seeing Someone, Somewhere in the Summertime on the track list I feared the ethereal beauty of that song would be lost in translation; but have no fear the song does not disappoint. It retains all of its evocative wide eyed yearning and is easily as powerful as the source work. The song showcases all of Charlie Burchill’s brilliance as I again nominate him as one of the most woefully overlooked guitarists of the age.
Another song with a high difficulty level in translation to acoustic is Waterfront. This is a quintessential Simple Minds song with so much power it must have been a quandary as to how to hold on to it in an acoustic version. The band effortlessly pulls off the move utilizing a gospel revival approach that delivers a satisfying climax to rival the original. The same can be said about Sanctify Yourself which was as true a stadium song as any Simple Minds ever produced. The members of the band pull the rabbit out of the hat once again, keeping the forceful impact of the original and make it look so easily pedestrian. Don’t be fooled the reinterpretation is a spectacular accomplishment. For the song Chelsea Girl which dates back to Simple Minds’ 1979 debut “Life in A Day”, Burchill brings out a Spanish guitar to perform the duties. The track takes on a lovely Bowie vibe. This song which was not a major favorite of mine moves up in esteem. On Alive and Kicking the song gets an earthier feel. The track stripped of its studio treatments displays that a great song can be pulled around and remain as mind blowing as its original release. Back up singer Sarah Brown is showcased on the song and it becomes a goosebump producing affair as it reaches for the heavens.
There will undoubtedly be some eye rolling from certain quarters on the inclusion of Don’t You Forget about Me, but as Jim Kerr has stated, “everyone else has had a go at it why not us?”. This version is like a laying of the ghost for the band. The lyrics of the song with this treatment jump out to the forefront making for a heart rendering disquiet. There is just the right amount of emotive interpretation from Kerr as he senses when to throttle back and when to push it to the floor. I also enjoyed his lovely Scottish accent slipping through. The album finishes up with the transcendent cover of Long Black Train. It is a gripping rendition and is gloriously moving and beautiful. The song is a fantastic doxology to a spectacular album.
Acoustic left me wondering why it had taken the band 30+ years to unplug. The album is a must have for Simple Minds aficionados and those who are curious about the band. It took me about two songs in to know I had to own this release. The fallout from these sessions for Kerr and Co. has been a recommitment to recording, with the band promising to record new original material in the future. They also plan to tour with a mixed acoustic and electric setlist to support the new release next year. “Acoustic” did what any album should do particularly for a band that is entering their fourth decade; it caused me to fall in love with Simple Minds’ music all over again.